The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview
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IN THE 1920S

When journalists and historians first looked at the Soviet Union of the 1920s, they were fascinated by the personal and political struggles of the big Bolsheviks—Trotsky and Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin. The most intriguing question was how a relatively unknown (at least to the journalists) figure like Stalin could emerge from being a “grey blur” (Sukhanov's phrase) to the dominant leader in the party in just a few years. The longer and deeper analysts looked into the political conflicts, however, the more often they turned away from personality (important as that was) toward broader social explanations. The great biographer of Stalin and Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, was among the first to note how early Stalin had accumulated power and the irony of how it had happened:

Two years after the civil war Russian society already lived under Stalin's virtual
rule, without being aware of the ruler's name. More strangely still, he was voted
and moved into all his positions of power by his rivals But the fight began
only after he had firmly gripped all the levers of power and after his opponents,
awakening to his role, had tried to move him from his dominant position. But
then they found him immovable.”1

Three successive political contests took place in the 1920s: the isolation and defeat of Trotsky by the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin (1923–1925); the defeat of Kamenev and Zinoviev by the diumvirate of Bukharin and Stalin (1925– 1927); and Stalin's victory over Bukharin and the so-called “Right” in the party (1928–1929). The struggle against Trotsky was largely artificially devised because the triumvirs feared his prominence and were determined to prevent him from donning the mantle of Lenin. Personal ambition certainly played a role, but the various participants in the struggle also represented different trends in the party and articulated different visions of how the country should be governed and socialism built. Deutscher saw the Bolshevik dilemma arising from the fact that the working class, small as it was in peasant Russia, had disintegrated, dispersed, largely disappeared during the civil war. The Communists represented only themselves, not the class in whose name they had seized power. “[T]he Bolshevik party maintained itself in power by usurpation.

1. Isaac Deutscher, Stalin, A Political Biography 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967),
p. 228.


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